3 April 2012

Bad Boys. Heroes or Cads? (Tuesday (recycled) Talk:

As most things are Green-geared and recycling is encouraged … and I haven’t got a lot of time today, I thought I would recycle an older post that was buried way down in the archives.

Before I get shouted at for being sexist I’m mainly talking about the heroes here – the drop dead gorgeous guys. Reason being, I prefer a drop dead gorgeous guy to a sultry, big busted, sexy seductive female. Bit bread & bread to me, I like a thick spread of butter and lots of jam! :-)
Guys (or gays) reading this, feel free to add your views in comments at the bottom!
I do have another article about feisty women – hope that evens the balance a little.

A discussion came up on Facebook about some readers liking their heroes in historical fiction to be faithful to their partners, one reviewer said she would give one star less if a character was unfaithful. I tried pointing out that in history “being faithful” was perhaps not so strictly adhered to or morally unacceptable – especially with blokes going off to sea or to fight for months (years!) on end. Plus, I argued, many women probably preferred their going off bonking other women because of the level of death in childbirth – and no contraception. The best way to avoid pregnancy? Avoid getting pregnant.

I'm not sure of my historical facts as recent history is not my field, but I have a feeling that moral fidelity came in with the Victorians. Don't know if anyone can put me right on this?

So what part does sexual “excitement” and a good dollop of “phwor” come into historical fiction? Readers love a charmer of a rogue - the "bad boy made good" hero. The sexy guy with the come-to-bed charisma. And beyond historical novels, why are we so drawn to the drunken womaniser, the werewolf, the vampire?

I prefer the character Bill Sykes to goody-two-shoes Oliver. (How many of us of my age group adored Oliver Reed in the musical Oliver! ?)  
Is it the excitement these characters create, the knowing that they are dangerous? Plus of course, in fiction, they are usually tall, dark, and incredibly handsome. 

Richard Sharpe (Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series) in the TV series was made “irresistible” to many viewers via  Sean Bean. A hero of a soldier who loves his woman, but rarely stays loyal. It’s a long time since I read the books, was the character as “sexy” in print as on the TV screen?
Jack Sparrow – oh how we drooled over him! (Well OK, Johnny Depp, but even he doesn’t have a squeaky clean past.) The Glitter Vamps in the Twilight series made girls swoon (not me, I hasten to add, I prefer my vamps to be dark, dangerous and definitely untwinkly).

Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind was a bit of a cad, and to be non-sexist, Scarlett wasn’t exactly the good little wife was she? “Oh Ashley, Ashley….” 

Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) is another one I lost my heart to, in the TV series and in Winston Graham’s fabulous novels. Poldark was rugged, capable, all man – but had his flaws. And his female opposite, Demelza (the lovely Angharad Rees) was as alluring
(for fans, I found this brilliant Poldark Website from where I (ahem) borrowed the images.

And then my own Jesamiah Acorne has difficulty keeping his breeches buttoned. I deliberately made him the lovable scoundrel.  Quick to laugh, formidable when angry, torn between the love of the sea and his ship, and the woman he wants as his own. And so easily seduced….
Would these characters, and the hundreds I haven’t named because I’ve only picked a few of my favourites, be as interesting if they all fell in love, got married, and then stayed at home with pipe, slippers and a crackling fire? I very much doubt it.

In an historical context, men were rarely loyal. Is it only 'now', i.e. recent history, that we see love and sex as the same thing? I don't think they did back in the past. The two were separate issues. Sex was sex, love was …. probably not as common as it is now, for the simple reason men and women didn’t move around so much, which limited choice, and there were no Celebs to drool over, apart from maybe a passing knight, or travelling troubadour.
So, is the sexy hero supposed to be faithful to his wife/woman - or do you mind if he occasionally strays? Would you expect a guy in a modern contemporary novel to be faithful, but not worry so much in an historical novel?

These are the comments and subsequent discussion, from Facebook :

Michele :
I get very disheartened when men are portrayed as lovable bad boys. As a mother, wife, sister and daughter I know there are many men who are entirely faithful and not one whit less exciting or amusing or lovable because of it. I find it tiresome that unfaithfulness is constantly written into stories and novels in a way that suggests it is a price one must expect to pay for being in love with someone extraordinary. It isn't. It would be so nice for once to read a male hero with zap & spirit & the ability to love so deeply they remain faithful.
I think readers like a true love story as well. I think that is the real reason the Twilight series did so well. It made such a change to have an enduring faithful male hero.
Mr Darcy and Mr Rochester being perfect examples of my ideal. Lots of faults and dark moments - but faithful and true once pledged.

Helen :
I agree, but in a historical context I disagree. Not necessarily saying this of my character, but until recently I would think many women were quite grateful for their men to "scratch an itch" elsewhere, for the simple reason there were no contraceptives and 1 in 4 women died in childbirth. Remain constantly pregnant with a faithful husband, or have him enjoy himself elsewhere?
Not sure how you can say Mr Rochester was faithful - didn't he lock his first wife up and pretend she didn't exist?

Michele :
She was completely bonkers though - I think the relationship counted as over morally speaking. Plus, it is also possible to be faithful and not have sex in a way that makes babies. I'm sure people in those days would have worked out ways of 'getting round' things. Including ways of getting rid of unwanted pregnancies - didn't they? I'm vaguely remembering Demelza Poldark and was it Ross Poldark? I think he did go astray or loved someone from afar- but Demelza wasn't at all pleased about it.
 I'm not saying it would be common - but then the uncommon is what we like to read about isn't it? The exceptions and the exceptional are fascinating. What would a man who went against the mores of the times be like? What would make him love so deeply that unfaithfulness would not be an option? I'd be enthralled. Especially if it didn't hinge on religion :)

Did you ever read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys? A good interpretation of why she was mad. And would we expect a man to stay faithful if he was away at sea, for instance, for months on end?
I'm interested in whether our view on sexual fidelity is a "modern" view as compared to that of the past.
A form of contraception was known from the 17th Century - lamb's intestines, or even a leather sheath, but these were not used to stop a pregnancy but to protect the man against STDs. Most men would find it shocking to not "do what they needed" (as Jesamiah says in Sea Witch -'... use a woman like a coffee house, go in and out without spending anything" (and no, he wasn't actually talking about himself)
Again, putting this into a historical context, I think people in the past regarded "sex" as something completely different to "love".

The Libertine (Johnny Depp) 
Good guy? Bad Guy?
Definitely sexy guy!

Jenny Q :
I like my heroes faithful. In historical fiction about real men, I can accept adultery because it really happened. But if the character is fictional, I want to read about a faithful one. Infidelity is pretty much the one thing that will ruin a book for me.

Alison Connolly :
I think we cannot possibly use modern standards to judge historical behaviour. Most marriages were not made for love. They were more of a business arrangement, although I won't deny that feelings could grow from those beginnings. From that I think we could draw the conclusion that men would not consider that they would be betraying anyone by indulging in any extra-marital nookie and most of the wives involved would probably expect it.
So, yes, it's ok for the hero to stray - probably closer to the truth than expecting him to be faithful.
And Richard Sharpe could charm me anytime!

 Allison Macias :
I have to agree with Jenny. I am perfectly fine with historical references to infidelity if its factual. I know that relationships don't always equal forever or faithfulness/
While I prefer my hero to be faithful once caught, it’s not a deal breaker if he strays a bit. I don't want him bedding every woman. But loyalty = swooning!!

Kelly :
Helen, I have to agree with you. Historically speaking, men strayed as much as they do now. But there were much different standards then for men and women. It was accepted and even expected that men would "scratch the itch" when needed but women were expected to remain virgins until their marriages were arranged - where else were men to go but to the whores? As with many historical society values, we cannot judge with 21st century values.
Personally, I prefer my heroes to be flawed and real, like your Arthur and Jesamiah.

Pauline Barclay :
Your pirate is a rouge, but a lovable one. Over at my Blog is an award for you, so please when you have a moment, go and collect it. You so deserve it...hmmm I hope the pirate won't steal it!

Susan Gourley :
I like reading historical fiction and would rather have it realistic than redraw history to make it fit into our contemporary views. The other side of historical women wanting to avoid pregnancy though was the diseases their unfaithful husbands brought home.

Jules Frusher :
I also think that we can't impose modern sexual etiquette on historical fiction... not if it's going to be realistic historical fiction. Maybe there is a distinction to be made between the grittier sort of HF and the romantic version?
As well as men being away for great lengths of time, it was also considered a bad thing (even a sin) for a woman to have sex whilst pregnant (because it could not lead to procreation). I'm sure not all couples complied but for those that did it meant that the man, if faithful, would again have to do without until after her churching. (Helen: so we are talking seven – eight months abstinence here!)
Plus, it was accepted that men sought release elsewhere, especially when their spouse was not available. The only time it might have been frowned upon is if he lived openly with his mistress thus publicly humiliating his wife (although this is what Eleanor of Aquitaine suffered with Henry and Rosamund Clifford).
Of course, for the women, the rules were very different!
As for my preferences, I like my bad boys bad :-)

At the risk of being controversial, and definitely with no intention of offence, from reading most reviews on Amazon.com/co.uk, it does seem that US readers are more reserved about fidelity. American readers prefer the faithful hero, while us Brits don’t mind them straying from the marriage bed. Is this because Americans are more deeply religious than the British I wonder?

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Your comments, thoughts, views are welcome.

(images found on Google search)


  1. It is interesting, isn't it, how people's moral compasses are affected depending on where they've been brought up. I wonder if those of us in the 'Old World' are a bit more in touch with our history? If we see it warts and all, and therefore we aren't so surprised that people back then (whenever it was) lived their lives by different standards?. Thinking about this it occurs to me that Diana Gabaldon's Jamie Fraser definitely falls into the faithful camp, and on the one occassion he strayed suffers pangs of guilt over it later, and Jamie is a hugely popular hero in both the USA and UK, with a very high 'phwar' factor.
    I also wonder if it is seen as more socially acceptable for Jack Sparrow to wander because he doesn't have a wife back at home? (His most daring moment is, after all, when he kisses Elizabeth who is spoken for but quite definitely not married at that point - a moot point?) Whereas Sharpe, for instance, strays even when married! (And yes he is as charismatic in the books!)
    Personally I have to say that I much prefer my heroes with a few human flaws and true to the morality of their own time, not ours. If we can't even be broad minded about our own past, how can we hope to be open minded about other societies in the present who don't conform exactly to our ways and morals?

  2. All good points Lin; I personally would find it hard to believe that a character in any century prior to the 19th was 100% faithful to a wife (Samuel Pepys suddenly came to mind - his antics with the housemaid!)

    Faithful in love and honour yes, in the bedroom (or elsewhere!) no.

    My anti-hero (as those who know me know) is Duke William of Normandy. It was remarked, by his contemporaries that he was a strange fellow because he did not look at other women, beyond his wife; in other words it was thought odd that he didn't bed other women. I always said he was a peculiar fellow! LOL

  3. Re: American v British attitudes to 'fidelity', formal religion my have something to do with it. But I believe its a deeper cultural difference than that. Americans often, despite the stereotypes about Brits, are more reserved. And what do we mean by 'fidelity? Sexual exclusivity is not, I would argue, in itself a measure of faithfulness. I would also argue that its unrealistic to expect the average male to remain sexually monogamous all his life. And depending on circumstances, I do not believe that sleeping with someone else is automatically a betrayal.

  4. I completely agree Welsh Mark - not quite sure about your last sentence, it all depends on the circumstances, I think. If a man is separated from his wife for many months (i.e. fighting in a war) do we seriously expect him to remain "faithful"? especially in a historical context when men were away for months, sometimes, years.
    I suppose the only thing that jars here is that us women are expected to stay faithful - I assume because of the practicality of possible children resulting from any dalliance.

  5. The double standard is often ferocious, and it is terribly persistent. I can cite 17th century law the best - women convicted of adultery in Rhode Island faced a fine and multiple whippings. Men were fined, but most were whipped only if they couldn't pay the fine. The severity of punishments also seemed dependent on the person's standing in society. Poor people's penalties were proportionately far larger than the same fine levied on affluent folk, and affluent people were not whipped. If one stood high enough in society, a new law might enable a forbidden act, such as allowing a divorce for incompatibility instead of accusing a high-born wife of adultery.

  6. and being cynical Jo Ann - I bet it was only the _young_ women who got stripped & whipped....

  7. It was seen at some points in history as necessary for men to 'set their seed' .. faithfullness was not always appreciated... by Regency times often women were grateful when the husband found amistress to take care of 'that sort of thing' faithfulness meant not flaunting the mistress and not allowing her to take the wife's place as Mistress of the Household.. a very different thing indeed. a wife and a mistress could be friends and men often had a friendly dancer or singer in the equivalent of the black book


  8. Very good point Elvara - when many women died because of childbirth (or were constantly pregnant) the "other" woman was very possibly seen as a god-send!

  9. Being gay and male I might have a slightly different take on things. :) I agree, Jo Ann. Double standards have often been, and often are, in place. I do not find that acceptable. What's sauce for the goose should today be sauce for the gander.

    However, in the historical context, there is the practical issue of property inheritance. The way it worked then, society needed to know the paternity of a child. Without DNA testing, confining the woman to one sexual partner was the only way of being sure and of course this had to be within marriage. It was less important for the male to have many partners as illegitimate offspring wouldn't automatically inherit. By the way, under Welsh law, paternity was a matter of recognition. All sons were legitimate if recognised as such by the Father; being conceived within wedlock was less of an issue. But then we Welsh have always been different. LOL

  10. In my opinion Welsh Mark us Welsh had a far better way of doing things!

    (I'm of Welsh heritage through my maternal grandfather & my DNA is 75% Celtic/British 25% Anglo Saxon, hence I regard myself as British (as in Briton) not as English)


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